Is it okay to be gay? Some local youth leaders say in a lot of circumstances it can feel like it’s not. Six young activists in the gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, two spirit and queer (GLBTTQ) community say while being a teen is hard enough, being a non-heterosexual teen comes with a laundry list of special troubles. Still, they are proof there’s hope.
Meet Kori, 16, Peter, 21, Miranda, 22, Kamill, 20, Ella, 17, and Amie, 21, the Rainbow Youth Advisory Committee (RYAC). As a by-youth, for-youth volunteer team, they identify needs in the GLBTTQ community in order to provide education and advocacy to meet those needs. And they receive support and training through the Youth Engagement Program, hosted by the Youth Services Bureau of Ottawa.
When does it get better?
While there’s a perception in the GLBTTQ community that the new generation of kids has it much easier than the last, or the one before that, these kids disagree. Peter suggests that only for some GLBTTQ kids have things really improved; he says he’s heard of schools in Scarborough where the phrase “that’s gay” has actually been banned because of diversity-consciousness. Meanwhile, Kori reveals her high school experience in a rural Ottawa area has been painful from the start. “It’s really school-specific,” she explains. “We do an annual training at a middle school, and the 11-year-olds there are actually more open-minded than most 18-year-olds.” The vibe in a school can also change from year to year; a school that was a healthy environment last year may be swamped with homophobic bullies the next year or vice-versa. Faculty changes play a large role, the youth suggest. So does the type of school board. While RYAC has been able to become actively involved with the public board, members say there are still huge barriers when it comes to working with the Catholic school system.
Team members indicate a difference between adults and youths being homophobic. Hatred based on religious texts seems to be a tool used by adult haters, whereas younger homophobes seem to have other concerns, like not appearing gay themselves. “With young people, they say ‘no homo’ when they give each other a hug,” Kori reports. “It’s really stupid.”
While homophobia changes its appearance frequently, and can be as overt as physical violence or as covert as teasing about wearing a feminine colour, the effect is the same. Statistics from sources such as bullyingstatistics.org show 30 percent of all completed teen suicides have been related to being part of the GLBTTQ community. These youth report being five times as likely to miss school because they feel unsafe. A 2005 survey notes the second-biggest reason youth are bullied is because of their perceived sexual orientation. The methods of persecution may change, but these stats have stayed the same for several generations, with earlier studies done in areas like Los Angeles showing almost identical numbers.
Someone to hold in high regard
Despite the odds stacked against them, there are GLBTTQ youth surviving and thriving throughout the city. Role models in pop culture, such as the trailblazing Ellen Degeneres and celebrated gender-bender Lady Gaga, have made the journey a little easier for teens, Miranda says. These celebrities may seem far-removed from Ottawa, but the RYAC youths explain it’s all about exposure. Brave celebrities including George Takei and Anderson Cooper, who put their entire careers on the line by coming out, help youth find their own brand of bravery and self-love.
These youth also identify gay-friendly brands as having a positive impact on them. Recently, a GLBTTQ-supportive Oreo cookie advertisement made huge waves, attracting both negative and positive attention on a global level that opened discussion and excited the RYAC members. Peter cites this as an example of how a company can make a very loud statement about acceptance and support, even in the face of adversity — and the GLBTTQ youth are watching, listening, and soaking it all in.
Closer to home, the RYAC youth say they get a lot of support and find role models through the services they access. Proud “out” GLBTTQ staff members in community services, as well as school faculty members, can provide a bridge between the generations. While adult activities in the GLBTTQ community can be inaccessible due to age restrictions, activism-focused activities are generally open to everyone and can provide teens with an opportunity to interact with an older generation and benefit from its wisdom. “The [GLBTTQ] community is the only place I’ve never felt excluded or looked down upon because I’m younger. It’s very youth-positive,” Kori says. Team members generally agree many of their major interactions with GLBTTQ adults have occurred within a social service or volunteer setting, and these relationships are an important part of feeling included in the larger GLBTTQ community.
Connecting in the community
How did these young people get involved in the support groups and youth teams that have been so beneficial to their journeys? Are there plenty of services available to young GLBTTQ people who want them? “The youth community is tight-knit, with lots of resources; sometimes the trick is finding it,” Miranda says, mentioning advertising can be a challenge. “You sort of have to know someone to get in,” Peter adds with a rueful smile. “You’ll see the pamphlets in your guidance counsellor’s office, but you probably won’t go until another youth takes you.” That’s why organizations such as RYAC play an important role in supporting GLBTTQ youth: peer interaction is key.
Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) provide another option. These school-based groups also allow teens to connect. Many high schools support the formation of GSAs, though it can be tricky to start one from scratch. GSAs are relatively new in the grand scheme of the GLBTTQ community’s history and have proven to be a great, low-stress way for teens to find support. Perhaps the biggest advantage is they’re designed so heterosexual youth can also attend, as “allies.” That means teens don’t have to publicly “out” themselves to join. Team members say this can be lifesaving in some of the more homophobic school environments.
One RYAC member, Kamill, has made peer connections despite an additional challenge. He shares his experience as a newcomer to Canada. “When I got here, I just asked everyone where to go. I was afraid, but I did it. I found that the Youth Engagement Program was a big opportunity for me. To encourage, not just myself, but other youth, too. I feel glad that I can do that.”
A little over a year ago, Ottawa lost a youth to suicide after a too-short life struggling against homophobia. Jamie Hubley was 15. His death garnered a lot of media coverage but he wasn’t the first kid to commit suicide over the homophobia he experienced. The RYAC youth mention Hubley often, citing him as an example of why the advocacy they get to practice is so vitally important. Unanimously, they agree their involvement with GLBTTQ activism is a buoy for them in rough times. “One of the messages we often give to kids is that it’s gonna get better when you’re an adult,” Kori says. ”But that’s a bad message for someone like Jamie, who wants it to be better right now. We need to find ways to cope with it now.”
The home front: how to help
Can parents offer support for young teens questioning their orientation? The youth from RYAC say yes. However, sometimes parents face peer pressure and homophobia themselves which can affect their acceptance of the news. Kori, for example, points out her parents are supportive of her, but in a rural community they find themselves surrounded by peers who are not. Generally, RYAC members agree parents are improving as supports for GLBTTQ kids.
For parents, fears and misconceptions can cause a lot of trouble on the home front. If your child shares thoughts or feelings about sexual orientation, the first step is to figure out what needs you and your child may have — and to reach out for support yourselves. There are services offered throughout the city, most notably at the Youth Services Bureau, Ottawa Family Services and Pink Triangle Services. Being honest with your child about your fears or concerns can be a positive thing if shared gently. RYAC members claim positive peer interaction is key, so work towards fostering those connections that can help your child feel supports outweigh difficulties. Encourage them to head to the groups offered both inside and out of school. It is not unusual for parents to drive an hour into town to drop their kid off at a GLBTTQ discussion group.
The RYAC youth don’t deny it’s hard — sometimes perilous — to grow up gay. But they also serve as role models. As vocal young GLBTTQ leaders, they demonstrate how, with the right supports, peer interactions and sense of direction found through volunteerism and activism, youth can thrive. Whether it’s posting up a rainbow Oreo cookie poster or dancing around the house to Lady Gaga, youth can find their strength and resiliency in many forms Yes, it can indeed get better, they say, and no: you don’t have to wait ’til you’re all grown up.